Economic justice is a crucial, but sometimes underappreciated, part of the feminist struggle. (Probably just as the feminist struggle is a crucial and underappreciated aspect of economic justice.) In today’s Lean In– world, more attention is being paid to women’s experiences in the labor market. It seems like more and more women are refusing to be quiet. Sheryl Sandberg’s “kind of feminist manifesto” has partially helped to set off a new wave feminist economic analysis and commentary. Women workers are speaking about inequality in hiring and promotions, the gender and race wage gaps, lack of paid maternity leave, and sexual harassment, as well as the more general devaluation of jobs predominantly done by women, such as teaching and nursing. But how we think about the intersection of feminism and the economy is a broad debate, and it includes many diverse ideas competing for the label “feminist.”
In order to address these crucial feminist economic issues, many schools of feminist thought have emerged in the quest to make our economy more equitable. More (neo)liberal strains, such as the kind espoused by Sheryl Sandberg, argue that capitalism is basically receptive to feminism, and indeed women must embrace it and its hierarchical economic organization in order to advance the status of women as a group. In other words, we should play the game. Individual achievement by women is seen as a feminist end in itself, regardless of how different groups of women (and people of all genders) are impacted by capitalism as a whole. This brand of feminist essentially accepts the terms of capitalism (and other hierarchies, such as white supremacy and many aspects of patriarchy) so long as she is able to get herself through the golden gate that leads to personal gain and class power, no matter who is left behind.
Other schools of feminist thought, however, are far more skeptical of this kind of “empowerment” feminism. They seek to call off this game and create a new structure – and maybe one that isn’t even a game at all. More radical feminists (and almost anyone is more radical than Sheryl Sandberg) view capitalism as a major source of sexist oppression, and believe that is must be abolished if true justice is ever to be achieved. Silvia Federici and Selma James of the Wages for Housework campaign of the 1970s argued that forms of work that women have been assigned throughout history have gone unrecognized and unrewarded. Often cloaked in the language of “love” or “femininity,” these jobs (including everything from childcare and housekeeping to sex work, collectively known as caring labor, as well as much of the world’s agriculture) are often said to be part of “women’s nature,” thus making them not “really” work at all. This allows such forms of labor (often labeled care or affective labor) to be forced onto women with no opportunity for fair compensation or even to have a say in the matter.
Feminist economic thinkers like economist Nancy Folbre and sociologist Paula England have theorized and measured the impact of this way of thinking about “women’s” work and confirmed what we already knew – that this rhetoric and occupational segregation of women leads to their inferior economic status vis-à-vis men.
Among this radical assortment of feminist perspectives, one particularly promising approach (developed in cooperation with other social justice struggles) is what’s being called the solidarity economy. The solidarity economy attempts to provide an alternative to market models.
It its formal conception, this often takes the form of a timebank. Individuals or groups offer their skills and talents to others in a community. Each hour of time they work earns them one “time dollar,” which they can then exchange for someone else’s time. This system is set up to value everyone’s labor equally, overcoming some of the problems of anonymity and alienation that plague the capitalist system. If I know the people with whom I am exchanging my labor, it makes it harder for me to erase their wellbeing from my economic calculations.
The key principles of the solidarity economy include “solidarity, mutualism, and cooperation,” “equity in all dimensions,” and “the primacy of social welfare over profits.” Examples of how the solidarity economy could play out would be spheres like worker owned cooperatives, (currently) unpaid care labor, and community supported agriculture.
A feminism that embraces economic inequality is a feminism that only a few, elite women can afford to advocate. Being asked to fight for the rights of the 1% is hardly a recipe for feminist solidarity. The ideas of the solidarity economy can address the goals of the feminist struggle.
Several organizations across the United States are already beginning to build the solidarity economy. These include the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, New Economy Coalition, and SolidarityNYC. In linking struggles for gender, racial, economic, and social justice, these and other organizations are fighting for an economy that works for everyone, not just the powerful few. It doesn’t take an economics degree to figure out that this would be a radically restructured economy, and one that can address the systemic inequalities of a patriarchal economy.
As one organization, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, states on their website, “There is not a single route to building the solidarity economy. We must experiment. We must strive to create the world in which we want to live, while also engaging with and improving the world in which we already live.” That is a challenge worth undertaking, and which is necessary for a truly liberatory feminism, beyond leaning in.